I live in Boston, and last week one of the local “art house” theaters, Kendall Square Cinema, had 3 films that featured Mark Duplass. Including: Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister’s Sister, and People Like Us. I have absolutely no interest in People Like Us (from the writer of Transformers 2… no thank you) but I did get to see the other two. For those who don’t know, Mark Duplass started off writing and directing no-budget films with his brother Jay. They became a leader in the mumblecore film making movement. Eventually the Duplass brothers became pretty successful (they’ve gone on to direct Hollywood produced films like Cyrus) and other filmmakers started coming to them for help because they knew the Duplass brothers could make a movie for almost nothing. As an executive producer I assume Mark began acting as a way to save productions money, he also happens to be very charismatic and hilarious. So how did his latest executive producing/acting adventures turn out?
Safety Not Guaranteed Safety Not Guaranteed premiered at this years Sundance Film Festival. In the film, Aubrey Plaza is a poor intern who volunteers to find out who wrote this ad: “WANTED: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. “Safety Not Guaranteed”. I have only done this once before.” This is a pretty awesome premise. I love time travel films and I really enjoy Plaza in Parks and Recreation (side note: I’m so sick of people disliking actors who are the “same character in everything” and will hopefully address why in the near future).
Anyways, I definitely liked it. At first the film felt like it was very low budget and was trying too hard to be silly and funny. There is a fair amount of improvy dialogue that just isn’t that funny. However, the second Duplass’s character enters the story the film easily finds it footing. Plaza’s time bouncing jokes off Amy Poehler is going to be great for her career and it shows here because Plaza and Duplass are hilarious together. As the film progressed it kept getting better and better. It does a tremendous job avoiding a black and white dichotomy. You’re never sure if Duplass’s character is absolutely nuts or actually has the ability to travel back in time.
This lack of certainty creates some pretty tense and hilarious moments including a scene where Duplass has to steal some materials. This is probably the funniest scene I’ve seen this year, and it involves almost no dialogue. Proof that well constructed images can be just as effective, if not more than witty dialogue. There are a few stumbles a long the way. The b-stories involving Plaza’s co-workers aren’t that great, and don’t really add anything to the theme. The film doesn’t totally pull off a couple serious moments, but it’s okay. These moments work well enough to move the film forward and create an emotionally connection. Everything leads to a pretty amazing and heart-felt finale that left me grinning. Final Grade: B
Your Sister’s Sister
Sister’s Sister is a much better example of mumblecore filmmaking than Safety Not Guaranteed. Lynn Shelton (director of Humpday, which I can’t recommend enough) tells a personal, intimate, story in basically one location with just a few actors who are definitely ad libbing some of their lines, but unlike Safety the improv feels real and natural, not clunky and forced. I’m sure Shelton and the actors spent more time working on the dialogue on set, after all the didn’t have nearly as many locations at Safety did. Your Sister’s Sister creates some amazing moments with this technique, including Duplass burping in the middle of a take and everyone just going with it. That one moment was so real, so natural. I reminded me of my life.
Like Safety Not Guaranteed, this film is absolutely hilarious, but also has serious moments. The difference is simple. Shelton has a better understanding of tone. Your Sister’s Sister actually starts with a very serious scene that becomes funny instead of randomly creating a super serious moment half way into the movie like Safety does. Starting the film this way prepares the audience for what’s the come far better than Safety’s opening does. Your Sister’s Sister is an incredibly raw and devastating film about three characters who are keeping huge secrets from each other and from us. Every decision a character makes is informed by these secrets, and when all these secrets come out it’s absolutely brilliant, my stomach was turning.
But then the film kind of falls apart. Unfortunately it turns into a very mainstream 30 minutes where nothing really happens and a sappy guitar scores everything. It’s frustrating because the first hour of the film is really great, maybe the best thing I’ve seen this year. In the end, the second to last scene almost pulls it back together, but it can’t make up for extended period of time where everyone just stands around. It proves just how important every single aspect of your film is. You always have to be making some kind of progress. When the propulsion of your story stalls an audience feels it, instantly. And it can take you out of the film, no matter how great it was before hand. This is the most important lesson I learned from Your Sister’s Sister. Even though the film doesn’t completely stick the landing you should definitely see it because the first hour in the most raw and honest thing I’ve seen this year. Final Grade : B+